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Gini Dietrich

PR Crisis for Skittles In Wake of Controversial Teen Shooting

By: Gini Dietrich | April 4, 2012 | 
219

I’ve been watching a different kind of PR crisis unfold with great interest – that of Skittles.

Skittles, you say? Taste the fruity rainbow, Skittles?

Yes, Skittles.

Because of the symbolism of the candy (Trayvon Martin was carrying only Skittles and a drink when he was shot), college student governments are buying it in bulk and reselling it to raise money for his family.

The candy has been piled into makeshift memorials, crammed into the pockets of thousands of people who have shown up at rallies in his name, and sent to the Sanford Police Department to protest the lack of an arrest in the case.

Sales are soaring for Skittles maker, Wrigley. But its new level of fame is quickly becoming a PR crisis that is threatening to hurt the company, more than it helps.

I know, I know. Sales are up. Everyone is talking about them. So what’s the problem?

According to the New York Times, people are calling for donations and giving back to communities where “murder based on stereotypes is a reoccurring theme.”

On social media sites like Twitter, people are suggesting that Wrigley is profiting greatly from the tragedy and should donate money made since Trayvon’s death to the family or causes that would help with racial reconciliation or underprivileged communities. Some African-Americans are even asking people to stop buying Skittles until the company gets more involved in the case and donates money.

So, just like we discussed yesterday where Etch A Sketch took advantage of a Romney senior aide’s gaffe and is selling more toys, Wrigley now has the opposite problem. Trayvon had Skittles in his pocket when he was killed and protestors are using the candy as a symbol for his death.

Clearly going the route of capitalizing on this opportunity is not the right thing to do. Is donating some of the increased profits the right thing to do? Is staying silent and watching it all unfold the right thing to do?

As communication professionals, we’re trained throughout our careers to deal with things such as someone dying from eating your product or someone being killed on the job. But this one? This one isn’t a case study you find very often, nor is it a scenario you typically include in your crisis management plan.

This is a crisis where “I”m sorry” doesn’t work. It’s a crisis where people on the social networks are telling you how to run your company. And, if you don’t donate money, you come off as the big, capitalist company, which could hurt you in the long-run.

Seemingly the “right” thing to do is donate money, but I’m not sure that’s the answer either.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

209 comments
vikkiorlando
vikkiorlando

I think it's horrible that groups are calling for them to donate anything. They're running a business. They had nothing to do with the incident. Period. We all have had business successes, many based on the tragedy of others (Competitor goes bankrupt, etc.) Once again people feel the need to take their anger out on the wrong entity. Donate some of your own money if you support these organizations. Don't try to bully/guilt an innocent bystander in this.

jgombita
jgombita

@dconconi to be honest I don't see how these two things are related. (I don't remember hearing about the Skittles connection in Cdn. media.)

MattLaCasse
MattLaCasse

SUPER touchy. So many different issues at play here. Race. Politics. Ethics. It's like one giant hornet's next waiting to be kicked. What really makes this interesting is that Wrigley, just like Etch-A-Sketch, had nothing to do with the situation. 

 

The number one thing Wrigley has to do is to NOT seem like it is taking advantage of the situation. To that end, any donation with a loud announcement to ANY organization will come off as grandstanding. I personally like the idea of a donation to some kind of college scholarship foundation since that was in Trayvon's immediate plans; perhaps even working with the Martin family to establish a foundation in Trayvon's name. No matter what, Wrigley can't be the company to make the announcement. It has to be the beneficiary that takes the most spotlight for this. Accusations of greed or capitalizing on a tragedy could make dents in the company it would take a long time to recover from.

MattACook
MattACook

Working for a company that has grown thanks almost 100% to social media, I can say without a doubt, the right decision is to take some of the profits and do something good and charitable. Doesn't have to be a big hullabaloo, but make it visible to those who care.

 

Businesses today own only the quality of their products. Branding is in the hands of the masses. In the end, doing the "good thing" will lead to more customer good will, and possibly more sales. 

TheAaronWade
TheAaronWade

@Canadian88 wow super interesting! I hope someone does a case study on this and we can look at how it was handled! @elissapr @spinsucks

ElissaFreeman
ElissaFreeman

When this edition of Spin Sucks popped into my inbox I thought: that @ginidietrich - she does it again:brings to light a burgeoning issue and creates intelligent conversation around it.

There are some really great comments here.  Where most companies are called on the carpet for a transgression, Wrigley is hearing the cries of 'do good'.  I have no doubt they will...but I also hope it will be a sustainable legacy that supports the root of the issue vs a band-aid approach.

diannahuff
diannahuff

@ginidietrich re: Skittle. Is this your blog? Your social share bar keeps getting in the way of reading. It moves on the iPad.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@megmroberts It was a million years ago that I saw you

Frank_Strong
Frank_Strong

It's definitely a challenging situation @ginidietrich -- I've read through most of the comments here and I tend to agree with you in principle. The capitalist in me is a firm believer of Adam Smith's thinking that a socially responsible company focuses on earning money (because the rest has to occur for that to happen in the long run:  good products, value, service, etc.). 

 

Yet on the other hand, I think Wrigley's is in a position where doing nothing is going to cause more problems.  There's a ton of reporting on this incident and quite frankly, I don't think we have all the facts yet.  Even so, I think Wrigley's would do well to find an organization they can work with.  Something not directly related -- a big brother/big sister type organization -- is what I'm thinking, but there's probably a better choice too. More than simply throwing money at the problem, but encouraging employees to get involved.  Maybe the CEO adopts a non-profit -- something along those lines.

 

I'd also recommend being a "quiet professional" about it.  It's something you just do -- without a press release or a statement.  Over time the word will get out about what they are doing and will alleviate any short-term concerns.  

 

That said, Wrigley's is a large enough company, with such a legacy, I'm sure if we dug a little we'd find it's likely they probably already have some philanthropic programs.  Nearly every CEO I've ever known has a few, and they are indeed quiet about it.   Maybe that's a story that's coming as this controversy grows. 

lisavielee
lisavielee

@ginidietrich thanks for sharing Skittles PR story. Interesting to read comments, different POV

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

@karlgibson great comment, too. :)

karlgibson
karlgibson

.@AmyVernon .@KOttavio .@ginidietrich Thanks for the link on the 'PR Crisis for Skittles' debate. I was glad to add my comment!

karlgibson
karlgibson

    I think that most  people following this story are much more concerned with the public safety of our country's youth and whether the shooter in the Martin murder will be arrested. I can honestly say that between social media, my own news org I'm at, people on the street, comment boards- I have not heard one person ask 'What are the makers of Skittles going to do with this sales blitz!?'

 

    Whatever Wrigley does, it should be private and discussed with their counsel first. Like any corporation, they can fund any charitable initiatives, scholarships or programs that they choose if they choose to.

 

   Part of what made this such a huge global sadness is commonality: human beings of all races and ages like Skittles candy. Wrigley needn't politicize or kowtow to anyone right now, especially in the wake of such raw emotion and worldwide momentum. If Wrigley opts to use or earmark any portion of their surging non-forecast profits to *any* public works then they'll look amazing.  But for anyone to take a stand and demand that Wrigley earmark profits would be an insipid move.  The consumer has the choice whether to buy any product and I don't think Wrigley's profits are the crux of this case.

 

   As for the NYT snippet up there, as a former employee of the NYT Group, I'd say the assertion that "some African-Americans" are calling for a moratorium on Skittles sales is laughably overblown. "Some" - I'd like to know how many? I'm sure it's a miniscule number and shouldn't be used to obfuscate the human connection behind the tragedy of this unfolding case . Skittles didn't shoot an unarmed minor and on that we all can agree.

LeanneHeller
LeanneHeller

@myleftone now I want skittles. Curse you and your insidious ways.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

@Lockstep It's funny there are so many comments, yet no one agrees on what to do

KellyeCrane
KellyeCrane

@JulesMonacelli You bet- thought-provoking stuff from @ginidietrich!

LaurenPalazzo
LaurenPalazzo

Decided to check twitter for a current #PR crisis to discuss in class. Should have know you would have a good one! @ginidietrich @spinsucks

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

Agreeing with @SociallyGenius and @jenzings and well, almost everyone: Caught in the middle here. 

 

It's not YET so much a damned either way on the rock, next to the hard place; but it's got a nice view. I'm siding with @bdorman264  - this is a a media-generated - and perpetuated - 'crisis.' Outside the core group of activists, I'm not sure it is. As with so many of these stories, I could ask my F&F - people online everyday - most probably would not have even heard of this 'big public outcry.' Lots of businesses and brands make money of a sudden spike in sales via some other event; doesn't necessarily make them greedy corporate bastards - not like they tripled the price of gas b/c a hurricane was coming 12 states over. Ahem.

 

Does this mean Skittles dba Wrigley can ignore? No. And as you say, this is the kind of tangent scenario that doesn't even graze the crisis communications plan except that you are getting 3rd and 4th party mentions of your product, requests and pressure to 'do something.' So what should they do? That's the hard part and for me, it raises more questions.

 

Do they have a policy on fundraising and 3rd party sales? I know there are bulk packages at the price clubs clearly labeled 'not for resale' while others are; if any groups are violating that, do they let it slide? If they deem these legitimate fundraising efforts, how do they acknowledge and/or endorse THIS cause over all of the others using Wrigley products? And what happens when the story changes? Do they already have some policy on corporate donations, maybe through a foundation of some sort? 

 

Too many unknowns at this point. I think they need to be upfront and honest via all their communications: "We like others are saddened by this tragedy, and offer our support and sympathy to those involved. We appreciate any non-profit using our product yada yada. While we cannot contribute to every solicitation, we are very involved with our community, make X donations via.... this, that, the other." IDK

 

They can't duck and cover, but they cannot and should not give into pressure/blackmail or faux media hype. A challenge to their PR team for sure, FWIW.

 

Leon
Leon

G'Day Gini,

I'm forever preaching about the importance of PEC: perception;expectation ; consequences. A very famous performance engineer called Geary Rummler once wrote "Consequences are often the key."

He was talking about staff performance. Clearly it applies in other fields. But it's a little minefield if we're not careful. 

 

Managers often ask the question "What's likely to happen if.....?"  But instead of thinking through the answer they delude themselves into believing that their preferred consequence is the most likely.

 

There's not much fun after that.

 

Best Wishes

 

Leon

TonyBennett
TonyBennett

At first blush, I was tempted to say that the Skittles crew should have a heart and give some of the profits back. But no, that's not the answer. It's not as if anyone is forcing the mourners to buy the candy, they're choosing to use it as a tribute. What bothers me is the call to stop buying skittles until they "show me the money." Those "leaders" are taking the focus away from Trayvon's cause and turning it into a money grab. That is a worse transgression because they're the ones who claim to have a vested interest in seeking justice, not seeking dollars

craigmillertv
craigmillertv

@ginidietrich Odd page behavior. Loads up and then disappears. Tried multiple times.

efrainortizjr
efrainortizjr

In this case, it is unfortunate for Wrigley, they are caught in the middle of a situation which they did not create for themselves. I believe the right thing for them to do at this point is to attempt, at a minimum, to show what they do or have done positively for the community. Does it make it right? Wrigley didn't go out and begin to capitalize from this. Those whom have made it a symbol of Trayvon Martin's death are actually ,unknowingly, more responsible for the increased profit gains made by Wrigley.

M_Koehler
M_Koehler

Not a good place for the folks at Wrigley to be in. They truly are d*mned if they do d*mned if they don't. I think the statement they released is appropriate but most people won't believe them. They certainly didn't ask for people to use their product as a form of protest. Would the added weight of a corporation supporting the protests to get the police to do something help? Probably, but do we want for profit corporations stepping in and leading the charge on social issues like this? That frankly scares me.

Tinu
Tinu

I think that Skittles is a peripheral and unwilling participant in this incident. We're still not sure exactly what the facts are, and most of the movement is based on emotion, righteous though it may be given what we THINK happened. And in all likelihood, what we think happened is probably what happened. But does that mean Wrigley's should be forced to make donations? And if so, who do these donations go to?  Under such intense scrutiny, someone's bound to come up with a reason why whatever organization they pick would be the wrong one. It would be one thing if Skittles was actively participating in getting people to buy Skittles because of what happened, but they aren't responsible for getting people to buy their product. I think they should emphasize the programs they're already involved in.  I think if I were them, I'd release a statement acknowledging what was happening, and that they're having conversations about what to do next, then make a list of things they were already involved in before the incident occurred that people can volunteer for or donate to in the meantime.

pocojuan
pocojuan

@ginidietrich Th KKK held a Skittles & Sweet Tea Celebration last wkend - Thousands of protesters wore hoodies had Sweet Tea & ate Skittles

ThePaulSutton
ThePaulSutton

@ginidietrich More to the point, Gini, what would YOU do? :o)

VickiDay
VickiDay

I would suggest getting involved in fundraising or donation - or maybe earmarking some of this perceived profit for micro financing on youth initiatives in areas where these kinds of deaths have occurred - getting involved with the community via his parents and family - maybe setting up a memorial fund in his name  

KimberlyTaylor
KimberlyTaylor

@ginidietrich I actually agreed w/ @donny_deutsch when the Skittles topic came up on @todayshow last week. Doing nothing is best right now.

MolliMegasko
MolliMegasko

I think waiting it out is important here.  We don’t know where this is going and Skittles should not try and profit from it.  (Any sort of move could look like they are even if they are not.)  I think the statement they made was PERFECT.  Taste that rainbow.

 

ahynes1
ahynes1

John F. Kennedy once said, "When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters.One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity".  It seems as if there is too little focus on the danger, and not enough on the opportunity.

 

Like many corporations, Wrigley's has a commitment to social responsibility.http://www.wrigley.com/global/principles-in-action/people.aspx

 

"We aim to make a difference by respecting diversity and encouraging inclusion, consistently improving our health and safety practices, providing volunteer opportunities for our associates and through philanthropy with real impact."Wrigley should focus on this and highlight efforts to help make communities safer.  "Any kid should be able to walk safely to a neighborhood store."

 

Use the opportunity to build the brand's Social Responsibility cred. 

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

Hmmm. I would ask the team at Wrigley if there is a way we can support or harness the fundraising energy. Without doing a bunch of digging, I just wonder if they have a platform where they can help others accomplish what they want. For example, if they have a blog or online network or any outlet, is there a champion of the cause (outside of the company) who wants to hop on and "take the mic?" 

 

I would advise them to keep an arm's length away from the situation exactly for the reasons you mention: They don't want to appear to be capitalizing on it any way. In fact, I think their statement which you mention in the comment below is a great start. 

 

I don't see why on earth they should be coerced into donating money to the cause. 

 

Interesting dilemma indeed.

sbpemberton2012
sbpemberton2012

Wrigley should do a little more investigation to see if Trayvon had a particular interest or activity he (or his family) was involved in or supported in some way--say, Boys and Girls Clubs. Then, Wrigley could work with the family to further that interest or activity as a "neutral" but worthwhile cause with donations or other kinds of support.  If that's a possibility, Wrigley will be "doing the right thing" without inadvertently becoming associated with an explosive issue unrelated to its products.

jenzings
jenzings

What a tough spot to be in. I'd be very leery of making any kinds of donations: as stated by others below, regardless of the amount it wouldn't be enough for some. It would also establish a horrible precedent.

 

Protesters chose to buy Skittles as a demonstration of a type of solidarity with Trayvon Martin. The company didn't endorse, advocate, or push this. They just sold Skittles. To be angry with the company for the results of the protesters' own actions is silly. They don't want the company to profit off of this? Easy solution. Stop buying the Skittles. Use pictures, or staple the empty packages to signs. Whatever.

 

Bullying the company into making a donation is ridiculous.

 

A statement should be more than enough. I hope this silliness passes soon.

courtney petty
courtney petty

This is a really interesting and quite sad situation. Thanks, Gini for sharing it with us. 

 

I'm torn, here. I think that Wrigley shouldn't have to donate or take action because they did not create this. But, then I think about the consequences of them staying silent- which I don't think is the right decision either. As customers, we are very frustrated when we seek reaction and conversation with brands and they ignore it/stay silent, so I think if Wrigley does that they will have bad repercussions. 

 

I think a statement would be a great middle ground. I would love to hear something like "Although we appreciate the business and all our customers, buying skittles does not help the cause - take a look around your communities and invest time and effort into helping racial reconciliation and underprivileged communities. That will make a lasting difference" > Obviously it would need polish, but I think that might be a good start. However, as a business professional you never want to turn away business and risk losing customers.

 

See? I'm torn. :)

BillyMcKrindle
BillyMcKrindle

Stop buying Skittles? Are people really saying that? Here's an idea... stop buying guns.

russ_dean
russ_dean

I agree its a tough spot for Wrigley, but it seems like there is no shortage of people making money from this tragedy. Hoodies, commemorative T-shirts, etc. are all being sold around this event (many probably raking in as much as Wrigley) but yet there's no outcry to stop buying hoodies.

TravisMClemens
TravisMClemens

Great post today, Gini! I really like that you threw it open to the community, and I've absolutely LOVED reading the discussion on what everybody would do. Thanks for setting the stage for great PR learning!

edwardmbury1
edwardmbury1

Let me pose this question: Would there be demands (or extortion) to have the manufacturer "donate" money to some kind of cause if the individual involved in this situation had gone out to purchase a different kind of consumer product?  Say beer or wine or spirits? 

PattiRoseKnight
PattiRoseKnight

This makes me want to buy Skittes and I don't even like them.  I don't think the brand should suffer because of protesters.  But I see what you are saying and how it could pan out.  Mike like Skittles - maybe I'll buy them more often just to help out a Wrigley product in pre-crisis.

KelleeOReilly
KelleeOReilly

While I agree it's too early to make any call on this, "hope it dies down" is a not a strong strategy. I would be building options now that move forward without looking driven by the social mob. Skittles may actually have been given a gift here and have a unique opportunity to make a statement about the diversity angle that is so obviously a part of this case. I might suggest taking time to carefully craft a message referencing the inclusive 'Rainbow' element of their brand and make a symbolic donation to an organization with a strong mission for building cross cultural and interracial understanding. (I hesitate to suggest the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition because of the lightning rod nature of Rev. Jackson, but...) It could even be a product donation if the organization is equipped to accept that for resale and grassroots awareness raising. NO, they didn't create this firestorm, but their brand seems tailor made to respond strongly and authentically to emphasize a hopeful commitment to creating a world where all people can live together in harmony in our communities ....   (just as all colors come together to create a taste sensation in the bag of skittles  --  forgive the superhokey ending.)

bdorman264
bdorman264

This case is definitely being played out in the media and the 'race card' is certainly a big part of it. I'm trying to withhold judgment and let the court's decide but I thought this was an interesting article in the paper how media has the ability and can slant public opinion. http://www.theledger.com/article/20120330/NEWS/120339942

 

Sorry I can't weigh in on Skittles or branding or anything else intelligent but I had to make sure I put my two cents in, because it's all about me anyway, right? 

 

Hola.......

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Really tough spot for Wrigleys. We still don't know if Trayvon attacked his shooter first or not. Until we know we are all making wild assumptions. I was at the gym that has many TVs. Fox News was on next to a basketball game I was watching. They had 5 white people discussing whether this case was being used by liberals to their advantage (that was the subject of conversation they kept flashing).

 

Wrigley's should use the profits from the sales and donate to something in the middle ground in my opinion. But we have no idea what the extra sales are. I bet they are a blip. Which means the PR issue is outsized to their profits I am pretty sure. But do you risk a boycott of your brands over this?

sydcon_mktg
sydcon_mktg

Ewww, what a uncomfortable position.  I really dont know what we would do (glad I dont have to find out). I agree with @KenMueller below, being held hostage by the activists is unfair.  They are really damned if the do, damned if they dont. 

 

Essentially these same activist created the problem for Wrigley. Maybe instead of buying all those Skittles they shouldve donated the money to the families or a cause in Trayvon Martin's name? They chose to buy the Skittles and drive up Wrigley's profit, Wrigley did not use it as a sales ploy. Shouldnt the activist be in the hot seat for all the waste they have created?  That is going to be a massive waste of product and consumer cash, too right?

laneyfitz
laneyfitz

@ginidietrich that's just crazy!

Trackbacks

  1. […] is in the early stages of a PR crisis of a very unique nature. Both the New York Times and the blog Spin Sucks have provided coverage on the issue. According to the New York Times, “Trayvon Martin, the […]

  2. […] read with interest Gini Dietrich’s post yesterday about how Skittles is finding themselves in a bit of a PR crisis because of the Trayvon Martin case. And through no fault of their own. There is a great discussion […]

  3. […] PR Crisis for Skittles In Wake of Controversial Teen Shooting […]

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  5. […] of social injustice.  Yet, the call for Mars, Inc. to donate proceeds from accelerated sales of Skittles spurred by the Trayvon Martin case falls into the “this is what we think you should do so do it” […]

  6. […] of social injustice.  Yet, the call for Mars, Inc. to donate proceeds from accelerated sales of Skittles spurred by the Trayvon Martin case falls into the “this is what we think you should do so do it” […]